Laurence, (Jean) Margaret

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LAURENCE, (Jean) Margaret

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Jean Margaret Wemyss in Neepawa, Manitoba, 18 July 1926. Education: United College, Winnipeg, 1944-47, B.A. in English 1947. Family: Married John F. Laurence in 1947 (separated 1962; divorced 1969); one son and one daughter. Career: Reporter, Winnipeg Citizen, 1947-48; lived in England, 1949; lived in Somaliland (now Somalia), 1950-51; lived in Gold Coast (now Ghana), 1952-57; lived in Vancouver, 1957-62; lived in London and Penn, Buckinghamshire, 1962-72; lived in Lakefield, Ontario, from 1974; writer-in-residence, University of Toronto, 1969-70, University of Western Ontario, London, 1973, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, 1974; chancellor, Trent University, 1981-83. Awards: Beta Sigma Phi award, 1961; University of Western Ontario President's medal, 1961, 1962, 1964; Governor-General's award, 1967, 1975; Canada Council senior fellowship, 1967, 1971; Molson prize, 1975; B'nai B'rith award, 1976; Periodical Distributors award, 1977; City of Toronto award, 1978; Canadian Booksellers Association Writer of the Year award, 1981; Banff Centre award, 1983. Honorary fellow, United College, University of Winnipeg, 1967. D.Litt.: McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, 1970; University of Toronto, 1972; Carleton University, Ottawa, 1974; Brandon University, Manitoba, 1975; Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, 1975; University of Western Ontario, 1975; Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, 1977. LL.D.: Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1972; Trent University, 1972; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, 1975. Companion, Order of Canada, 1971; fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1977. Died: 6 January 1987.


Short Stories

The Tomorrow-Tamer. 1963.

A Bird in the House. 1970.


This Side Jordan. 1960.

The Stone Angel. 1964.

A Jest of God. 1966; as Rachel, Rachel, 1968; as Now I Lay Me Down, 1968.

The Fire-Dwellers. 1969.

The Diviners. 1974.


The Prophet's Camel Bell (travel). 1963; as New Wind in a Dry Land, 1964.

Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966. 1968.

Jason's Quest (for children). 1970.

Heart of a Stranger (essays). 1976.

Six Darn Cows (for children). 1979.

The Olden-Days Coat (for children). 1979.

The Christmas Birthday Story (for children). 1980.

Margaret Laurence-Al Purdy, A Friendship in Letters: Selected Correspondence. 1993.

Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman. 1997.

Editor and Translator, A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose. 1954.



by Susan J. Warwick, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 1 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, 1979.

Critical Studies:

Laurence, 1969, and The Manawaka World of Laurence, 1975, both by Clara Thomas; Three Voices: The Lives of Laurence, Gabrielle Roy, and Frederick Philip Grove by Joan Hind-Smith, 1975; Laurence: The Writer and Her Critics edited by W.H. New, 1977; "Laurence Issue" of Journal of Canadian Studies, 13 (3), 1978, and Journal of Canadian Fiction 27, Summer 1980; The Work of Laurence by John Robert Sorfleet, 1980; Laurence by Patricia Morley, 1981; A Place to Stand On: Essays by and about Laurence edited by George Woodcock, 1983; Mother and Daughter Relationships in the Manawaka Works of Laurence by Helen M. Buss, 1985; Laurence: An Appreciation edited by Christl Verduyn, 1988; Crossing the River: Essays in Honour of Laurence edited by Kristjana Gunnars, 1988; Critical Approaches to the Fiction of Laurence edited by Colin Nicholson, 1990; "Semi-autobiographical Fiction and Revisionary Realism in A Bird in the House" by Peter Easingwood, in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature, edited by Coral A. Howells and Lynette Hunter, 1991; "'Half War/Half Peace': Laurence and the Publishing of A Bird in the House" by Richard A. Davies, in English Studies in Canada 17, September 1991; River of Now and Then: Margaret Laurence's The Diviners by Susan Jane Warwick, 1993; Stacey's Choice: Margaret Laurence's The Fire-Dwellers by Nora Foster Stovel, 1993; The Crafting of Chaos: Narrative Structure in Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel and The Diviners by Hildegard Kuester, 1994; Critical Spaces: Margaret Laurence and Janet Frame by Lorna Irvine, 1995; Re/membering Selves: Alienation and Survival in the Novels of Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence by Coomi S. Vevaina, 1996; New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism, 1996; The Life of Margaret Laurence by James King, 1997.

* * *

Margaret Laurence's literary career, even though virtually all her work was completed in Canada or England, can be divided in terms of theme and setting into two parts, African and Canadian. Apart from her novels and other larger works, each period was marked by a volume of stories: The Tomorrow-Tamer, emanating from African memories, and A Bird in the House, tales of a Canadian prairie childhood that form the only work of fiction Laurence granted was partly autobiographical.

Laurence's African experience began in 1950 when she went to Somaliland with her engineer husband, who was engaged building small dams in the desert, and famine was already a subject that filled her mind when she wrote her fine travel book, The Prophet's Camel Bell. In 1952 she moved on to Gold Coast (now Ghana), and it was there that she began to write fiction about Africa, often seeking to perceive it through the eyes and minds of Africans; but it was Vancouver, to which she returned in 1957, that she completed her African works, including a novel (This Side Jordan) and the Tomorrow-Tamer stories. It was with these early stories, often published in the new magazines that were appearing in Canada's literary renaissance of the 1950s and 1960s, that Laurence began to make her reputation.

Marginality is one of the most persistently repeated themes in Laurence's African stories, largely perhaps because her own attempts to know and understand Africans left her with a strong sense of her own situation as an unwilling outsider. Some of the best pieces are in fact about non-Africans "stuck" in a changing Africa, like the Levantine hairdresser in "The Perfumed Sea," who is forced to call on his wits and change his ways when the white ladies depart and his clients are all native women, and the young English missionary's son in "The Drummer of All the World," who is educated at his father's village school where all his friends were African and who returns after independence to find these very friends are alienated from him and he is alone in a strange land with no home elsewhere. And, in what are perhaps the best stories of all, there are the Africans who have absorbed enough of the values of the West to be disturbed by those of the traditional world they reenter or have dealings with. "The Rain Child," told with wry tenderness by an old English teacher who has learned to walk beside native ways, concerns a black girl educated in England through her early years, who is utterly lost and uncomprehending among the native girls brought up by custom. "Godman's Master" dramatically tells of the coming together of Africa's past and its possible future when a young man, acculturated by four years at a British university, comes back and rescues one of the strangest inhabitants of the old traditional society. This is the midget called Godman who has been kept in a box by his exploiter and forced to make prophetic utterances that bewilder the villagers. When the relationship between rescuer and rescued becomes impossible, it is Godman who departs into the world of freak exploitation and who perhaps sets the keynote to this whole volume of stories when he says to Moses, his unhappy former benefactor, "I fear and fear, and yet I live." Moses answers gently, "No … man can do otherwise." For in spite of all the noise and color of an Africa setting itself free, it is foreboding, uncertainty, and the fears and problems of that very freedom that dominate these stories of Africa.

If in the African stories Laurence sought to enter the minds of cultures and traditions different from her own, in those that constitute A Bird in the House she is in the most direct way leading back to her origins. These tales, with a single leading character and her dominating family, are really a single discontinuous work. Like a novel, they show the various aspects of temperament and the changing perceptions created by time and growth, yet they do not have a novel's development towards a conclusion. Each story has a tentative feel, and we learn its real significance from the stories that follow after, which gives the impression of a series of portrait photographs taken at various stages of awakening awareness rather than the narrative film a novel would provide. Still, the teller maintains her own privacy as Laurence tended to do in real life. There is a distancing to these incidents, though of a different kind from the distancing of the creative process when she finally wrote her fiction about Africa in Vancouver and her novels about Canada. And so they are perhaps more inventive than Laurence's "confession" of autobiographical intent suggests. Some critics, including the present one, find the book most convincing as a presentation of a prairie society recognizing its mortality or of individuals and whole social groups reaching that realization. Death is so often present that one wonders what is the real bird in the house, that house that remains the constant place of so many departures, from place and from life.

—George Woodcock

See the essays on "The Loons" and "The Tomorrow-Tamer."

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Laurence, (Jean) Margaret

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